Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The battle for the nation’s soul

Girish Ramakrishna, the man who is driving cricket’s grassroots development in Botswana, wants to see the sport overtake football in popularity.

I hate to dampen your spirits, but, hey, let’s do a bit of a reality check all the same. If, like me, you hope to see Botswana play test cricket in your lifetime, then sit back and take another sip on your cocktail ÔÇô it seems we are in for a loooooong wait. I am not making up any of this.

Listen to the guy whose work is to turn us into a cricketing nation.

“It’s a long way,” says Girish Ramakrishna.

Will it happen in my lifetime (I am over 40, by the way.)?

“Let’s just say it’s a long way,” he insists. “For now, T20 is where we can fancy our chances. And for that we need to do well consistently. If you don’t have consistency it is going to be difficult.”

Rather than bemoan what we can’t help, he chooses to look at the positive side ÔÇô and he mentions a number of milestones: introduction of an alternative sport in Botswana, and getting teachers, school children and the communities to be interested in the sport.

You have to understand Ramakrishna’s work within the context of the Botswana Cricket Association’s (BCA) strategic plan. When the BCA leadership sat down to take stock a few years back, the picture that emerged wasn’t quite a masterpiece. Yes, there was a senior national team (it comprised between 60 ÔÇô 80 percent citizens, with the balance taken up by expatriates), but down below, there were no structures that would feed the national team with players. This was identified as a problem that had to be attended.

Out of that realization, the BCA began to roll out elaborate cricket development activities in February 2007. There was a deliberate decision to channel resources towards grassroots development, with particular bias towards children in public primary schools. In the four years that the programme has been in existence, it has covered 127 public schools and around 7, 000 children.

Over 100 teachers have been trained in basic administration course, umpiring, and coaching. Four different layers of the sport development programme ÔÇô Under-11, Under-13, Under-15, and Under-17 ÔÇô have been created.

Overseeing this ambitious programme is Ramakrishna, a chartered accountant with a master’s degree in sports management, who quit his job at a top accounting firm two years back to become the association’s CEO.

He explains that the roll-out plan has been two-phased. The first phase was to create awareness about the sport, after which the mode moved to making the children enjoy the sport. The response has been overwhelming. There was a time he would struggle to have enough players to make a full squad. Not anymore.

“These days you find that we have only 11 places in a team, but 100 kids turn up,” Ramakrishna says. “It’s a challenge; a healthy challenge. It’s a good sign for me.”
So, why target public schools for this initiative?

“Take a child from a middle or high income family in Botswana. The child is exposed to many sports. He may play cricket or any other sport,” says Ramakrishna. “But when you pick a government primary kid, one has to look at the psyche of the child, and analyse the background the child is coming from. You are saying to him, ‘here is a sport that’s available to you, come and enjoy. If you enjoy it you can be a national hero’. Secondly, there is the hunger to excel. He’s focused, determined, strives for excellence, and exhibits the discipline required to succeed.”

The effect of this approach is that cricket has managed to avoid being tagged an elitist sport, which it could have easily become. This approach has allowed cricket to compete for young players almost on an equal footing with traditionally popular sports such as football.

Ramakrishna sees the sport as a vehicle to address issues such as the fabric of society. He was once told me a story. There was a scheduled tournament in Odi, and one child did not have proper attire. An uncle promised to see to it that on match day, the child would be fully attired. Not only did he do that, but he sponsored the entire team’s kit.

“That is a good example of community participation, which is key to successful implementation of this outreach programme” he says. “I wish more parents could be as more forthcoming. In any sport, if a child is playing and a parent receives an sms that the child did well, it’s not good enough. You must spend quality time with the child, and that’s missing here. It has start from the home. Parents have to be there. It’s a big emotional thing for the child who is on the field playing. At a tournament, you get 300 ÔÇô 400 children, and not more than five parents. Don’t tell me everyone has no time.”

He tells a heart- rending story of a player who arrived at the airport wearing a “Player of the Tournament” medal around his neck, and his parents were not there to share in his moment of glory.
“The player had performed exceedingly well,” he says, “but there was no-one to receive him at the airport.”

As part of the development programme, there is a cricket clinic every Saturday morning at the BCA grounds in Gaborone, which attracts more than 100 children ÔÇô both boys and girls ÔÇô each weekend. The players’ dedication is out of this world. There is a child who walks about 15km each weekend without fail to the cricket ground. Another travels from Otse.

“You don’t have to remind these kids about the Saturday clinic,” Ramakrishna says. “This is what gives one the drive to keep on going on. You feel there is a lot to do; and it’s not only about the game. It’s also about developing leadership, management skills, organisation, team spirit and respect for the opposition. It’s an all-embracing character molding. At some point in life, they will look back and say, ‘I learnt this from cricket’.”

Ramakrishna is candid that there are setbacks from time to time. For instance, an attempt was made to introduce the programme to three schools in Maun. An orientation exercise was done, but nothing happened afterwards.

“We can’t go back [to Maun] to check and monitor the progress because it’s 1000km away,” he says.
Other constraints include lack of playing facilities. Presently, the association has only two grounds.

“We are not able to get land, and that is hampering our progress,” he says. “Our appeal to the community is if you are not using the land allow us to use it. We will put up the facilities and the community will still own the land.”

As in every situation, there are exceptions. In Mogobane, the principal of the local junior secondary school has set aside a piece of land within the school premises for BCA to put up cricket facilities. Ramakrishna tells an interesting about the woman. She called him one day in desperate need of assistance. All new students in her school, fresh from primary, demanded to play cricket ÔÇô and yet it did not from part of the school’s extracurricular bouquet.

“It was a healthy situation for me,” he laughs. “If only all school principals could call me with a similar problem.”

If the BCA leadership were to take stock once again, how would the situation look like?
“We have managed to get the kids started,” says Ramakrishna. “We now have a good pool of players, both boys and girls, whom we will be concentrating on to sharpen their skills. They form the nucleus of our future senior national team, and our senior coach will be working very closely with them.”

Ok, we may not play test cricket in my lifetime, but will I see the sport overtake football in popularity?

“That’s my target,” he says. “If we had facilities we would make serious impact. But consider this; there was a time when people didn’t know cricket, but now children force their parents to watch it.”

A native of cricket-mad India, Ramakrishna never imagined a career in the sport. In his family, children were drilled towards academic achievement. When the opportunity to work for BCA arose, he saw it as an avenue to follow one of his passions.

“I am doing something I like and enjoy. This is also an opportunity for me to give back to society. I knew that it would be a different environment and challenging task. I accepted it knowingly,” he points out.

To ensure continuity of its development programme, BCA plans to build a cricket academy for children. Ramakrishna says it will be a world class facility to be staffed by different professionals such as dieticians, and sports psychologists.

“We are doing all this because we know that people come and go, but the game continues,” he says. “The game has to continue.”

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